Blue Jays: Just How Valuable is a 100 mph Fastball?
By Jim Scott
Much has been made about the Blue Jays’ Nate Pearson and his 100+ mph fastball. Just how valuable is a “century” to a pitcher?
In a recent (well worth reading!) Athletic article, Nick Ashborne asks “What does throwing 100 mph in MLB say about Nate Pearson’s chance at greatness?“.
He concludes by saying:
"So it’s pretty clear that you’ve got a great chance to succeed as a starter in MLB if you can find a 100 mph fastball from time-to-time. Part of what makes Pearson so exciting is that it seems like he’s got tonnes of them lying around the house.Pearson’s heat is no guarantee of future superstardom – the careers of players such as Rubby De La Rosa, Andrew Cashner, and even Nathan Eovaldi are proof of that.But as individual tools go, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one to bet on."
His comments got me thinking. On the one hand, there are pitchers who have leveraged crazy heat to long and successful major league careers. But there are also players who have had the velocity but without the control/command and without the secondary pitches, and who have been “less successful”. A MLB-level hitter *can* hit a 100 mph fastball, if he knows it is coming.
So I thought I would do a small experiment.
For the last five years or so, Baseball America has published an annual list of their “century club” – minor league pitchers who have thrown at least one pitch at 100+ mph in the prior year. The number of pitchers on the list varies year-to-year. In 2018, for example, there were 63 MiLB pitchers who touched triple digits.
So my experiment was this. In the 2016 “century list”, there were 71 pitchers who touched 100 mph. You can see a list of the 71 here, sorted by max velocity, and then by team. My experiment was to see where those pitchers are now, three seasons later.
Some of the 71 have not yet made it to the majors (the 2016 list covered players from all levels of the minors). Of the 15 players who are still considered serious prospects by fangraphs, the highest ranked is Michael Kopech of the White Sox, who is a 55-grade prospect and #20 on the Fangraphs top prospects list. Next is Tony Santillan – a 50-grade, and number 103. The remaining players are 45 grade or lower.
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Of course, some of the players identified in 2016 have made it to MLB and are no longer considered “prospects”. Of the 28 players who fall into this category, the highest career fWAR is 8.0 by Luis Castillo of the Reds. Next is 5.8 by Reynaldo Lopez of the wSox, and 3.1 for Frankie Montas of the Athletics. But these top pitchers all have something in common – the have more than one pitch. In fact, Castillo did not break out until 2019 (when he developed a scary-good change-up), and Montas had a 0.4 fWAR and 4.74 SIERA through his first three seasons until he developed a splitter in early 2019.
Of course, some of the pitchers with 2016 heat have failed to achieve their potential due to injury (Alex Reyes) or poor decisions (Francis Martes). But many more became what Fangraphs calls “fastball only pitchers”, and have failed to achieve a MLB career for that reason. Others have struggled to control the heat, and had more success hitting the bull than hitting the strike zone.
The bottom line
Without question, a century fastball is a powerful weapon and it can only enhance a pitcher’s arsenal. But, as valuable as it is, it is not enough. What makes a pitcher like Nate so special is not just that he can throw a baseball at 150% the speed of a cheetah, but that he pairs the fastball with a 60-grade slider, 55-grade change and 50-grade curve, all with decent control and command. So, while I would hesitate to “bet on” a power fastball in isolation, it can definitely make a good pitcher a whole lot better.